Alpha Protocol is fictionally a game about being an intelligence operative, a spy. Separate from the aesthetic trappings culturally associated with espionage, the way in which it deals with information itself reinforces this theme of intelligence gathering and exploitation.
In-game fictional collectibles are not uncommon. From books to audio logs, these often exist to provide context, or to help with specific puzzles. An audio log in one level can detail the code to a locked door or foreshadow an ominous plot reveal in several hours’ time; they are either explicitly useful or narrative colour, occasionally both.
In Alpha Protocol one of the resources you can collect are Intelligence Dossiers. Obtained either by talking to other characters or finding them in the world, each Dossier unlocks additional information on a particular individual or organisation. This information is presented in the game as contextual narrative: descriptions of characters, their history and relationships. Where these Dossiers differ from similar collectible information in other games is in the influence they can have upon your actions. A particular character’s Dossier will rarely state explicitly how they prefer to be spoken to, though by reading between the lines you can ascertain their likely reactions to a given approach.
Organisations that you can find yourself in conflict with over the course of Alpha Protocol are differentiated by their clothing, weapons, and tactics. All of these things can be learnt from their Dossier, allowing you to identify potential enemies and friends through observation. With this knowledge you can determine their likely allegiances and goals, and the most beneficial way in which to interact with them. Even if you chose to always take the same approach to each situation knowing how particular individuals and organisations are liable to react can allow you to prepare for the consequences of your actions.
The decision to search a room or hack a computer is one that occurs at the moment-to-moment level, though because of the information you can obtain these low-level choices can have a substantial impact on your high-level plans. Choosing to explore an area and hack a computer hidden in the basement might provide you with the specific piece of intelligence you need avoid getting into a gunfight with somebody several hours later; you now know exactly what to say, or what not to say.
Intelligence Dossiers in Alpha Protocol are beneficial not simply as collectibles but for the increased options they provide. In Alpha Protocol “intelligence gathering” is more than a fictional justification for your actions, intelligence itself is one of the most useful and valuable resources you can obtain.
Following Ridley and the last surviving Metroid down to the surface of Zebes, bounty-hunter Samus Aran finds, amid the scattered remains of Chozo civilisation, a planet teeming with life. The statues left behind by the Chozo provide upgrades to Samus’ suit, altering its capabilities and allowing her to continue her explorations into once inaccessible areas. In addition to these character-altering modifications, other rooms through Zebes offer Samus the opportunity to resupply her Energy or Missile reserves, while returning to her ship will enable a complete resupply of all resources.
Alongside these explicit means of resupply the fauna of Zebes, when killed, may leave behind a pick-up that can restock a limited quantity of one of Samus’ expendable resources. What, if anything, the creature will provide upon death is dependent upon her current status; if any of her resources are at maximum a pick-up of that type will not be dropped.
Most creature types respawn when Samus re-enters an area, allowing them to be farmed to keep her Energy tanks topped up. One exception to this are the pipe based creatures that spawn every few seconds and travel horizontal across the screen. Because these creatures continually respawn without any action on the part of the player they provide a means of fully resupplying without the need to exit and return to an area; they can be easily farmed for Energy capsules and other resources.
The various forms of pipe creatures make use of at least three separate but related mechanics and it is the relationships between these which allow them to function in the way they do. They are a classic example of dynamics at work, a change to any of the underlying mechanics would alter the way you interact with these pipe creatures. If they spawned in the same manner as other creatures, their use as a form of resupply would be no more effective than any of the other fauna found throughout Zebes. If the pick-up left behind upon death wasn’t related to Samus’ current status there would no longer be the certainty that every time they were killed they would provide something immediately useful, the act of farming them would become a gamble. Additionally, if firing beam weapons drained Energy, or if the creatures could only be killed by Missiles or Super Bombs, the benefits of killing them would be counterbalanced by the cost of doing so.
The function of the pipe based creatures is particularly interesting in that they allow the expenditure of time for resources. The ending of Super Metroid depends on the time taken to complete the game so utilising the resupply dynamic of the pipe creatures can get you out of a difficult situation at the cost of time, which may alter the ending witnessed.
These pipe creatures are organic resupply points, where time can be sacrificed for a complete replenishment of resources. This dynamic is never explained, the act of discovery is a sign that you have developed an understanding of the underlying systems. You are rewarding for showing this understanding of how the game systems functions in a way that is in context and non-patronising.
In Dishonored, the first power granted you by the Outsider – the only one which you have no choice over – is the short distance teleport, Blink.
What Blink offers is more than simply the ability to instantaneously move forward. If that was the extent of its power it would still be useful but it wouldn’t be as disruptive as it is. Rather than being restricted to directly ahead, the destination of your Blink can be anywhere within a sphere around your current location: the roof of a building, the floor behind an NPC, or the middle of the air. Provided there is a straight line between your current position and the destination, you can Blink there.
The elegance of Blink comes from the few restrictions placed upon its use. It is not context dependant; there are no specific “Blink-able” locations. It can be used to move through any space that you would normally be able to occupy; so you cannot move through solid surfaces or active Walls of Light. Finally, it uses the same amount of Mana as is automatically replenished, making it readily available. With so few restrictions, the decision of when, where, and even if, to use Blink is left up to the player.
Instantaneous movement between two points on the same horizontal plane is useful; the effect Blink has on your perception of, and engagement with, vertical space is where it becomes truly transformative.
By not being limited to the horizontal, Blink changes the usable topography of a level. Normally in a first person game it is possible to jump onto higher surfaces and in so doing alter your vertical position. Given a standard model of gravity the path to these higher spaces is slower than the path down, though it is also much safer. From a high point you can leap off and will likely take damage when you land. With Blink you can teleport up to a roof and back down with the same expenditure of time and Mana. You can move as rapidly and safely in the vertical dimension as the horizontal one.
The Knife Of Dunwall DLC changes the core Blink ability, further enhancing its strength as a tool for vertical movement. When initiated time will freeze provided you are not manually moving in any direction. This means you can fall from a great height and at the last moment initiate a Blink and have as much time as necessary to target a safe landing spot. The reverse is also possible; you can perform a Blink at the top of a jump and use it to reach even greater heights.
One of the constants of first person games is movement through space, by providing you with a power that allows for near instant movement between two points in any dimension Dishonored disrupts the standard model of movement and succeeds in making vertical movement almost as safe and rapid as horizontal movement, changing the way players perceive and interact with the space around them.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution, like its forebears, allows players to vary their approach, from direct combat to stealth, based on personal expression rather than the requirements of a given set-piece. The mechanics and level design combine to allow the player to engage in any encounter (excluding boss fights) through the use of stealth, combat, or some combination of the two. Key to this is the cover system around which stealth and combat are built.
In order to allow stealth-focused players to traverse an area successfully, levels need to be designed to allow those players to move between important locations while retaining some degree of concealment. In an occlusion-based stealth model this means providing occluding geometry, cover, in a pattern that enables players to navigate from one location to another while keeping an object between themselves and any NPCs. The combat-focused player is in a similar position, though they will not need a complete path through each encounter space; the more cover available the greater their range of tactical movement options. The same distribution of cover that provides concealed movement can be used by the combat-focused player to reposition and potentially outflank hostile NPCs.
This spatial arrangement of geometry is enhanced by the switch from first- to third-person once players take cover. If the game remained in first-person when Adam Jensen took cover behind a lab bench or crate it would be difficult to maintain situational awareness. For both the stealth and combat focused players an accurate mental model of where NPCs are within a given area is important. For the former it’s necessary to ensure that you keep some form of solid object between you, for the latter you need to know where somebody is before you can shoot them.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution does provide a radar display that can serve as a guide to the relative position of hostile NPCs in the environment, however it operates at a level of abstraction and therefore using it becomes a two stage process. Instead of looking at the world and seeing exactly where NPCs are positioned players relying exclusively on the radar will need to mentally overlay the information provided onto what they remember about the spatial layout of the level. Where the radar excels is in its ability to provide information on NPCs outside your immediate field-of-view, helping you to avoid being flanked.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution uses its cover system for both combat and stealth and in doing so has managed to enable the two to coexist in a way that allows both to be utilised within a single encounter. The same occluding geometry that provides concealment from detection also provides protection from incoming fire. Instead of making the stealth-focused player weak by forcing them into the darkness and away from enemies, the cover system of Deus Ex: Human Revolution ensures that stealth-focused players are in just as strong a position as combat-focused players when in cover.
By requiring both stealth- and combat-focused players to relate to the spatial layout of a level in the same way Deus Ex: Human Revolution is able to create a hybrid system where mastering the core abilities of movement and positioning are beneficial to all types of player. Furthermore, when the same layout of cover is beneficial to multiple approaches it makes it easier to switch between styles, even within the same encounter.
I joked on Twitter that Life Is Strange has taught me that twenty-something male critics sure have some deeply held opinions on the speech patterns of teenage girls. It’s the default criticism of this game, “the dialogue is bad”, like “the level design is good” it’s a meaningless criticism when not expanded upon.
My first time through Episode 1 “Chrysalis” I didn’t register there was anything remarkable about the dialogue, there was too many other little touches in the animation and character design that drew me into the world Dontnod had created. Even now, after replaying the first episode, I can see the cracks but I’m still not convinced that the dialogue is unequivocally awful; if anything it’s awkward and clumsy in a way that feels representative of characters who are still emotionally and psychologically struggling with their own identity.
The biggest thing that stands out is the way characters simply say too much, with flat assertions of emotion used in place of subtly or implication; it’s a case of telling rather than showing that gets better as the episode goes on, and is fortunately largely non-existent in later episodes. A large reason for this is due to the reliance on Max’s internal monologue which is trying to both convey information to the player and build up a picture of her character. During her voiceovers there is a confusion between Max as narrator and Max as character, she talks about subjects that should be familiar to her as if she is experiencing them for the first time; it’s the “As you know…” trope as internal monologue.
As part of this desire to explain the world to the player every character use overly specific language with repeated uses of Max Caulfield’s full name in what are contextually framed as informal circumstances. Proper nouns are used in their complete form rather than being replaced with a more natural shorthand and relying on the audience to make the connection. Nobody would say “Blackwell Academy” every time, when “Blackwell” provides exactly the same information in a less forced manner and “school” is even more natural, though potentially less likely to be used by eighteen year olds as it carries associations of childhood.
A lot of the problems with the overly didactic dialogue choices are lessened in the subsequent episodes as Dontnod appear to grow more comfortable with the player’s place in the world and more confident in their own ability to present information indirectly.
For all its missteps in dialogue and distracting lip-syncing mishaps, so much of Life Is Strange feels human and honest in a way that few games have. I was never a teenage girl and I don’t know how different that experience is to my own but large parts of Life Is Strange were uncomfortably evocative of the anxiety I suffered from about sixteen to twenty five.
Something I can speak to is being an eighteen year old, and a particularly snarky and awkward one at that. Eighteen years olds are weird, and really fucking irritating. I’m thoroughly unconvinced by anybody who thinks they were anything but a self-absorbed asshole at eighteen. Everything is important when you’re eighteen, except the things you don’t care about which are all trivial bullshit. Everybody is having more sex than you. Is more popular than you. Is more self-assured than you. Being eighteen, nineteen, practically anything up to twenty five is just a permanent state of imposter syndrome; a state some never escape from.
It’s far from rare for teenagers to have screwed up perceptions about the relative worth of knowing certain things. Being able to name your idols feels important and mature, it’s a way to show you have tastes and care about something in a deeper, less childish way. I remember doing just that in my first year at University, knowing who John Carmack or Doug Church were if others in my Game Programming class didn’t made me feel special, superior. I’d judge others based on what books they’d read or what music they listened too. I genuinely once decreed that “I could never be friends with somebody who hadn’t read The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy“. The media I consumed then, the things I cared about, felt so important that they were definitive, I simply couldn’t comprehend associating with people who didn’t share those very specific tastes.
I don’t have much direct interaction with people in their early twenties but I do live in a University city and am often in pubs or coffee shops where students gather and so much of their conversation is littered with particular words or turns of phrase that seem to fill the role of punctuation. I say this about students but I know it’s true of myself. I find I’ve got a casual speaking vocabulary that’s essentially thirty words and they include anachronisms like “doozy” and “moron” that as far as I remember weren’t even fashionable or popular in my own lifetime; I’ve no idea where I’ve picked them up.
I self identified as a geek growing up and I understood terms like “preppy” and “jock” and applied them, despite both of those labels coming exclusively from television and having a heritage in a culture that I was not a part of. I’m sure if I’d ever heard the term “hipster” when I was eighteen I’d have delighted in using it whenever I had the chance. Labels are really fucking important when you’re developing your own identity and worldview, and labels that have some degree of cultural cachet, either by dint of their use in pop culture or by older (but not old) people, are even more important.
There are few betters ways to highlight your own maturity than to mimic what is presented to you as mature.
It was only when I reached my late twenties that I realised how obsessed I had been with the notion of maturity; an obsession clung to most fiercely by those who exhibit it least.
I don’t know how I’d react in Max’s place, but I’ve experienced some (fortunately minor) traumatic events in my life and “acting normally” was one of the only ways I could find to keep going. Emotional autopilot, you keep up your expected cultural performance as you always have because it’s the one thing that’s remained constant.
If I ever gained the power to rewind time there’s a lot I’d want to change but I know what eighteen year old me would have done. Rewinding time is an awkward teenager’s ultimate superpower, even if I could have saved the world I’d more than likely have used it just as much to avoid looking uncool.
Warning: The following contains spoilers for the ending of Catherine.
Catherine, Atlus’s 2011\12 visual novel puzzle game amalgamation is a game I’ve seen cited as “one of the most sexist” games made and another example of “the weird Japanese and their games about sex”. I don’t have much interest getting into the racism and ethnocentrism of that second comment, but the idea that Catherine is sexist is something I’ve struggled with. It was one of my favourite games of 2012 but the reasons for that are uncomfortable.
There’s a bunch of fairly obvious reasons why Catherine can be considered sexist: objectification; heteronormative representations; and transphobia are just a few of the many justifiable criticisms… Put like that I wonder where I can really go with this argument, so I’ll just stick with my personal experience.
The basic conceit of the relationships portrayed in Catherine rely on played out tropes: the “shrew”; the “infantilised seductress”; and the “commitment-phobic man”. As common as those tropes are in contemporary fiction it’s rare – at least in my experience – for the underlying cultural factors behind the “commitment-phobic man” trope to be examined.
I’m in my early thirties, in a long-term relationship that I’ve no desire to see end; however, I have defined feelings about marriage and children, I am uninterested in either. All those are facts about my current life experience and Vincent is the only character I’ve inhabited in a video game that has represented any of those facets of my own psychology.
Vincent is uncertain, fearful and troubled by thoughts of “what might be” because he’s a product of a society that holds up Catherine not as a person in her own right but an object for men to strive toward; she’s the beautiful woman as status symbol, her “capture” a validation of a man’s masculinity and success. It’s a horrible, insidious cultural force and one men are suffocated by practically from birth. At the same time we are also bombarded with messages about the importance of being a husband and a father, again reinforced by the notions of such things as markers of masculinity and success.
Throughout ours teens and twenties these messages are all but impossible to ignore, unsurprising given that so much media created for men in that age range is generally horrible, being based around the concepts of “sex as a competition” and the importance of being an “alpha male”.
By the time we reach our thirties we’re expected to have adopted one of those frequently contradictory mindsets and have “settled down”, either to a life of marriage and children, or one of “sexual conquests” and bachelorhood.
Life doesn’t really work like that, by the time I reached my late twenties I saw all the bullshit cultural messaging for what it was, but with so few alternative representations to relate to I felt stuck. Vincent at the start of Catherine reminded me powerfully of what that felt like. While his friends all made their decisions and went down one of the two opposing paths of masculinity (though its notable that those two paths didn’t bring happiness and success, instead the truth was messy and complicated as it is wont to be), he didn’t know who he was or what he wanted.
As I played Catherine I strove to be honest at every juncture, I tried to be polite to Catherine without leading her on, and where I was granted the option I tried to be honest with Katherine, and yet still found myself justifying lying to her: “It’s the best thing for her.” “Nothing really happened so there’s nothing to tell her.” I was succumbing to all the cultural programming I had become so convinced I’d seen through.
In the end despite maintaining that I wasn’t interested I opened the sexy photos from Catherine and complimented her on them, again justifying that behaviour was easy: “I’m just being polite”. “I shouldn’t shame her for being comfortable with her sexuality.”
The truth was that, despite my protestations, I was and still am infected by the toxic notions of beautiful women as status symbols. I wanted to be successful, I wanted Catherine to like me because that made me feel good, but I didn’t want to abandon Katherine either.
In the end the game revealed that Catherine was a succubus, and that given my actions I would end up with her in the underworld, an outcome I had been convinced I wouldn’t get because I was just being a “nice guy”. I felt cheated somewhat, Catherine hadn’t been real and all my actions had been essentially for nothing; no matter what the game said I felt like I’d got the bad ending.
Of course Catherine wasn’t really who she appeared to be, the notion of this perfect sexual fantasy object who will appear from nowhere and fill your life with excitement and mark you out as a successful masculine man is a myth. Sadly it’s a myth that’s insidious and omnipresent, it’s practically everywhere you look in contemporary western culture. Being beautiful is a mark of success for women, “possessing” that beauty is a mark of success for men.
Catherine was a myth and secretly chasing that myth, while desperately telling myself otherwise, led nowhere. My final moments with Catherine were unsettling because in those moments I realised how strongly the cultural messages of masculinity still exist inside my own mind despite what I might tell myself.
Catherine is sexist, you could almost says it’s sexism incarnate. It’s an embodiment of the conflicting and contradictory cultural messages men are bombarded with, and it helped me realised how much sway they still hold over me.
Catherine is a mirror held up to my own prejudices and beliefs, because Vincent is exactly as sexist as I am, and that’s a hard thing to admit.
I don’t play shooters. We had GoldenEye when I was a kid but I only ever played against my brother and I’ve mostly avoided them since. I was initially drawn to Destiny despite this for a couple reasons. Partly it’s a function of dating a guy who is writing a book which examines the level design of a section of Halo in detail. I have sat through multiple lectures about its combat design, the way the game forces you to be clever about which weapons you use, the different behaviours the enemies exhibit, etc, etc, ad nauseum (lest anyone think this is a gendered thing let it be known that I have subjected him to treatises on the finer points of Harvest Moon more than once). The point is that I now have an intellectual appreciation for Halo and other shooters that I used to dismiss out of hand.
One of the reasons Destiny is the first shooter I’ve tried since then is that I tend to panic when shot at, particularly if I can’t find the shooter; I feel overwhelmed when enemies get close and in first person I struggle to keep track of what is out of sight. In Destiny this is less of a problem. The enemies shoot relatively slow, highly visible projectiles and as long as I stay far enough away, or keep my back to the wall, I can keep an eye on everyone who is trying to kill me and avoid their efforts. While some of the enemies like to get in close, like the Dregs of the Fallen or the Thralls of the Hive, Destiny gives me a way to manage them in the form of the melee attack. I have been playing as a Warlock, which particularly helps as her melee attack shoves enemies backwards when it doesn’t kill them, granting me some breathing room. Spacial awareness is still an issue for me but here one of the major complaints about Destiny actually works in my favour; if I have to return to an area over and over again then eventually I will memorise where the best cover is and I can avoid the corners I know I’ve been trapped in before.
There are other aspects of the gameplay that I know exist in other games but that I am only discovering for the first time with Destiny. The biggest thrill for me has been my gradual mastery of timing. I had heard people talk about how powerful games can make you feel but there is almost no comparison between the intellectual satisfaction I have experienced when mastering an RPG and the sheer pleasure of taking down waves of enemies, the joy of staggering a Thrall long enough to reload before hitting the melee button as he jumps toward you, or the gratification of popping out of cover just as your health refills to take down the last enemy in one shot. As I’ve played and my confidence in my abilities has grown I’ve become more aggressive, actively chasing down unshielded Captains or standing in the open to line up a precision shot on a Vandal as he fires at me. When this works, or I make it through a gruelling Darkness section, I feel invincible in a way few other games have ever managed. When it doesn’t? I go back to playing cautiously until my confidence returns.
My newfound appreciation for the gameplay wouldn’t have been enough to get me to keep playing Destiny if it weren’t for the story. People have mocked the naming conventions but they fit perfectly with what I think the game is trying to achieve. The lore reaches for the classic fantasy of Earthsea layered underneath the outward appearance of the space fiction of Arthur C. Clark and others. This sounds like it should be unbelievably pretentious but I believe it works if you are willing to delve into the Grimoire. Everything fits seamlessly if you do, with gameplay and story working to reinforce each other. For example the Dregs behave more aggressively in combat than the Vandals or the Captains and of course they would since their second pair of arms have been docked and they have to earn the right to regrow them. I have come across three Fallen Houses so far as I play; the House of Devils, brought low by the death of their Archon early in the game but still swarming the Cosmodrome; the House of Kings, determined after the fall of the House of Devils to take control of an old Warmind that could prove critical to the Guardians; and the House of Exiles, mostly made up of Dregs living among the Hive on the moon, while doing patrol missions there it is possible to thwart attempts by them at raising a mixed army of Fallen and Hive. These Houses each have a different colour scheme and appear at the appropriate points in the story but I only noticed because I had been primed to by the Grimoire; the Hive have similar distinctions although their ranks are made up of different religious sects.
I also want to address some of the complaints about Peter Dinklage’s voice acting. So far I have only reached the moon and it’s possible that it gets markedly worse later in the game but there have been several incredible moments from him. One early on is the first meeting with the Speaker. The Speaker expresses his hope that your Ghost chose his Guardian well and his response is “I did… I’m sure of it”. His uncertainty rings clear, but so does his willingness to put his faith in you. Later, on the moon, you come across a dead Guardian. Your Ghost asks “Where is his Ghost…?”. His sudden fear for himself and horror at what might have happened to his fellow Ghost come through perfectly. Peter Dinklage’s voice acting does a remarkable job of getting across the idea that your Ghost is an independent entity, with his own hopes and fears. The game reinforces this through the Grimoire but these lines exist outside of that, even if you never read a single card you will hear them.
I can’t fault anyone for finding Destiny lacking. My experience with it is by no means the norm, the gameplay that I find so satisfying isn’t new to most and as much as I wish more players would delve into the story I can’t blame those who assume the game itself doesn’t care whether they do or not. This is a shame because Destiny is so much more than it appears at first glance. The enemies have more depth and nuance than the broad banner of “the Darkness” suggests. The brief descriptions on some items hint at a longstanding rivalry between Hunters and Warlocks. While I suspect the Traveller remains a silent, enigmatic orb throughout the game, that my Ghost was born from it makes me inclined to learn more about it. I encourage anyone who plays to take the time to look past the surface to the rich history beneath.
Note: This was originally posted as a comment on the Sparky Clarkson article I link to. As I was writing I realised there was a broader point to be made, so I extended and adapted that comment into this article.
Sparky Clarkson didn’t likeRemember Me as much as I did; reading his analysis helped me understand my own feelings and why certain types of cinematic action game have a tendency to feel awkward and dishonest. I believe it’s due to a misguided attempt to hide from players that they are taking actions within a fictionalised virtual world that has its own specific rules and limitations; a focus on cinematic as the end rather than the means.
I agree that the goal of the “cinematic action game” genre is to “engage the player as closely as possible with the characters and their stories” but I don’t think making systems invisible is the only, or even the best, way of achieving this.
To digress slightly, the oft misused and maligned concept of “immersion” is frequently cited as the point at which players “forget they are playing a game”. It is better understood from as a form of holistic completeness and coherence, rather than one of “systemic invisibility”. The player is never going to “forget they are playing a game” to any reasonably measurable degree, the artifice of the real world is too ever present to make that an achievable, or particularly rational, goal; no matter how deeply I am absorbed in a game if my bladder is full my body will relay that information to me urgently and persistently. What is a more useful way to frame immersion is as the presentation to the player of an environment where every action is responded to coherently and consistently so that there are no rough edges to their experience, no jarring edge cases where the implicit or explicit rules of the system break down and the illusion of completeness and wholeness is shattered. This is the “immersion” of the “immersive sim”, games like Thief: The Dark Project or Deus Ex which,no matter the technology used in their construction, are never going to fool anybody into thinking that they “are really there”, but which have a systemic honesty and consistency that makes them feel like complete worlds; where actions have discernible consequences, and it’s easy to get drawn into their constructed environments. This is also why Dark Souls is incredibly immersive despite its third person camera, overly large HUD and onscreen health bars; honesty and consistency.
The cinematic action game genre doesn’t have immersion as one of its goals, instead the means by which they strive to “engage the player as closely as possible” is through ensuring that the player and character frames are always synchronized, that there is minimal drift. The claim that the goal of the cinematic action game genre is that of systemic invisibility is a conflation of intent and methodology. Cinematic action games use the tropes of cinema toward the same ends, but that cinematic mimicry is not the end in itself. The goal, as it is with cinema, is to evoke empathy between audience and subject, between players and characters.
There are genres for which making the systems invisible, either initially or entirely, is a goal however these games are built with a degree of systemic depth and complexity that rewards exploration and experimentation. Cinematic action games rarely share this systemic depth because they are designed to tell a specific story and make the player feel a part of that story for however long it lasts. One of the best means by which this is achieved is through clarity and consistency; the rules and limitations need to be clear and consistent if the player and character frames are to remain aligned. This is why cinematic action games that try to make their systems invisible often fluctuate between two extremes with systems that are either unclear and arbitrary, or unintentionally obvious.
The diegetic navigation overlay of Remember Me is functionally no different to the colour coded signposting of The Last Of Us. Both serve to differentiate usable surfaces from those that, despite being the same size, shape and within a reasonable distance of the character, are not usable. One key difference between The Last Of Us and Remember Me is that the latter never puts you in a position where you have to make a guess as to whether a surface is usable or whether the colouration is just an aesthetic choice and not a usability one. The Last of Us uses yellow in multiple and often conflicting ways: to signify usable surfaces, to draw the eye to points of interest, and as a means of aesthetic colouration associated with military barricades and warning signs. Two identical objects might be highlighted by yellow paint, one is scalable the other is not; because this happens frequently the colouration cannot be trusted and the difference between what is and isn’t usable begins to feel arbitrary. The character knows something you don’t (that one surface is functional the other purely aesthetic) and the notion that you are going through this experience together starts to break down, the frames diverge. This is a problem Remember Me never exhibits because it is absolutely clear at all times what is and isn’t usable, this helps maintain the alignment of player and character frames by constraining valid player actions to those that are relevant within the current context.
Cinematic action games and other genres that combine multiple forms of play usually divide the environment into spaces that serve one form and those that serve another. Exploration spaces give way to combat spaces or vice versa. The “obvious combat arena” level design is a common problem where certain aspects of the design of combat spaces are so obvious that they are instantly recognisable as such unintentionally foreshadowing the combat encounter to come; the “room full of chest high walls” problem.
Remember Me is no different to other games it its division of space between different forms, one way in which it avoids the “obvious combat space” problem is by simply not attempting to hide it; when you enter a combat space combat begins, there is no ambiguity between the use of spaces and therefore no divergence in awareness between player and character. At several points during The Last of Us you have the opportunity to explore an area that will later become a combat space. You are not made aware of this change in function directly but the differences in the spatial layout and the items available become glaringly obvious indicators that this is not an exploration only space despite what it may portray itself to be. Bricks and bottles only appear as items you can pick up within in a combat space, so the moment you see them you know what’s coming even if that change in state doesn’t trigger until after a cutscene. The shape, size and distribution of cover objects is immediately identifiable and distinctly artificial; even before you are introduced to the game’s combat systems. Instead of making the transitions between exploration and combat invisible The Last of Us makes it obvious in a way that gives the player greater forewarning than the character, creating a gulf between the two, and undercutting the tension created when safe spaces become suddenly hostile. Remember Me avoids this problem because combat spaces are immediately identifiable and combat within them occurs immediately. You, as the player, know something is a combat space the same moment Nilin does.
Games are artificial constructs, they have unique rules and limitations and in order to engage with them, in order to play, those rules need to be clear and consistent; or unclear and inconsistent in ways that the game is designed around. Cinematic action games are build upon a foundation of ensuring the player and character frames remain aligned and that any drift is kept to a minimum. It’s a relationship of trust, trust is built on honesty, and when the boundaries of the simulation are clear the game has to be honest.
Games have their own language, written in health bars, and experience points, and combo meters, systems designed to feed back information to the player with clarity and consistency. To strike out against the artifice of games is an insidious form of cinema envy, one that presumes that the language of cinema is the more developed language and the one toward which games should strive. Cinema is subjective, the camera lies frequently and intentionally; cinema disassembles and ambiguates as a means of eliciting an emotional response. This form of emotional manipulation has its place but when the player is in control, when their actions become those of the character such dishonesty is undesirable, it drives a wedge between the two, pushing the player and character frames apart in potentially irreconcilable ways.
Attempting to hide or obfuscate the boundaries of a virtual world can too often lead to confusion and ambiguity, to a game that feels dishonest. Without clear rules applied honestly players are left to second guess themselves and the game, the convergence of player and character frames that is the goal of the cinematic action game genre breaks down. Why can I climb this piece of yellow bordered scenery but not that one? Did I miss that bandit while exploring or did he only spawn after I opened the door? I don’t have the answers to those questions because The Last of Us is not honest with me about the application of its rules, they are hidden behind cinematic tropes. But I do I know that Nilin will always make that jump and that we both know when a fight’s about to start.
The first issue of Sneaky Bastards: The Stealth Gaming Magazine is now on sale, available to purchase in either .PDF or print editions the magazine features 100 pages of full colour ad-free content on Arkane Studios’ Dishonored. Alongside interviews, a stealth focused review, and critical commentary, the magazine features 48 pages of level design analysis from me on every level in the game and the two Daud focused pieces of DLC (The Knife Of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches). This analysis takes a similar form to my own Groping The Map content, and that I have already been producing on Thief II: The Metal Age for the Sneaky Bastards website, albeit more focused and condensed to better fit a magazine format.
For me, the most unambiguously happy part of Gone Home was the conclusion of Oscar’s story. This may seem a strange thing to say give the accepted reading of his story (since confirmed by the developers), that he abused his nephew Terrence, the father of both the player and Sam. That isn’t how I read it though.
Oscar’s is the most nebulous story in the game, the one with the least substance, the one that requires the most input from the player. I decided quite early on that he was homosexual. He was so strongly connected to Sam, with the other characters barely acknowledging him, that I couldn’t see any other possibility. Early on, when the game is still teasing you with its ghost story, you find notes from Sam talking about using a Ouija board as well as books about exorcism and possession. She wants to summon Oscar, find out what he wants and lay him to rest. It’s one of the first bonding moments for Sam and Lonnie, the two girls giggling inside their makeshift fort, scaring each other in an excuse to be closer.
The basement contains most of what we know Oscar’s life story, told through newspaper clippings and his own letters. In 1963 his world fell apart. He was rejected by his family and even his attempts to prove that he was willing to change couldn’t bring them back to him. It’s not hard to imagine that the sin he committed was nothing more than being homosexual. Given the way gay people are still treated I was more than willing to believe that Terry’s parents would take him away and refuse to let him see his uncle anymore. Even the letter to Terry, sent in 1972 after the first pride marches began and only a year before homosexuality was taken out of the DSM, speaks to this. Maybe Oscar started to allow himself to think that he wasn’t mentally ill and that his family would welcome him back, a hope clearly dashed by a man who can’t admit that his own daughter is going through anything more than a ‘phase’. On the other hand, it’s possible that Terry never knew why he lost the uncle whose house he had spent much of his childhood in. The time he keeps returning to in his books, the year that he lost his uncle and the country lost a president, could be seen as his attempt to rescue a man and a happiness taken away without explanation.
With the house divided into sections the basement is clearly Oscar’s territory. Except it isn’t anymore. This is where the player witnesses Sam and Lonnie’s relationship start to become serious, where you find (and blushingly discard) evidence of their sexual relationship. This is Sam’s space now.
All of this is depressing. I felt sorry for Oscar, locked alone in his own home, more than any other character. After all they still have their lives to live, any problems they face can still be overcome. That he was so linked to Sam gave me hope for him and the ghost story the game tells is a happy one. Towards the end you come across the secret cupboard the two girls performed the summoning in, the last loose end for Oscar. Where Sam’s love for Lonnie, her acceptance by both Lonnie and herself, is enough to lay Oscar to rest. No matter what else happens, Sam will never find herself alone or unloved.